Commentary on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
This week’s lectionary text is a bit daunting. The Ten Commandments!
One really cannot hope to out-do Charlton Heston, holding up the stone tablets with the wind blowing through his magnificent mane of hair. However, there are rich possibilities for preaching about the ways communities of God might imagine themselves in new and fresh terms.
The lectionary’s guidance on the verses to be read (all of the Ten Commandments, minus the extended justifications of the second and fifth commandments) encourages the preacher to think about the shape of Decalogue as a whole.
In the lectionary’s sustained attention to Exodus’s wilderness narrative, we have been following Moses, God, and the people on their journey. It has not been easy since they left the celebration on the banks of the Red Sea. The people have been quarreling with Moses and “testing” God, God has been working to keep up with the people’s basic needs for food and water, and Moses has about had it with being the leader of this not-so-merry band.
In the context of the larger narrative, the giving of the commandments can be understood as providing the people with a sense of purpose and identity and even a bit of security. Although God has brought them out of Egypt and performed a number of miracles, it is not until this point in the story that God tells the people about God’s intentions for them.
With God’s own terrifying voice, God tells the people what is expected of them. Already, in Exodus 19, God has told the people that if they agree to terms of the covenant, they will be for Yahweh a treasured possession, “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (19:5-6). What follows in Exodus 20 is the substance of the covenant that God has spoken of previously in abstract terms.
The commandments, however, are not simply a list of rules given to whip into shape a stiff-necked people; instead, they are better viewed as a means to form and nurture an alternative community, bound not by common goals of wealth and prestige, but rather by loyalty to a god who has chosen to redeem a group of slaves from a life of bondage. The commandments mean to sketch out a space where human beings can live fruitful, productive, and meaningful lives before God and with one another.
Within the frame of the text, which begins “I am Yahweh your god” and ends with “your neighbor,” it is revealed that life according to the commandments is fundamentally about radical commitment to God and compassion for the neighbor. The Commandments are intended to form the character of this community by cultivating a deep and enduring love for and loyalty to God, which then extends out to all creation.
The prologue to the commandments identifies God with the act of liberation they have already experienced, but it also recasts Egypt as the place from which they were liberated. With their anxieties about food and water, the people have been thinking of Egypt in rather nostalgic terms, dreaming of the cucumbers and hamburgers they enjoyed there.
With the order of the commandments, God makes it possible for the people to view their new lives, even in the wilderness, not as chaotic and terrifying, but as meaningful and potentially fruitful. As many scholars have noted, the Sabbath commandment at the center of the Decalogue, with its insistence on rest and restoration for every person, animal, and field, communicates that life is about more than productivity and work.
The commandments, as a whole, present an alternative vision to life in Egypt, a place where there was little interest in regeneration and rest and no freedom. The commandments have not traditionally been associated with freedom, and yet, the broad contours of the commandments insure that only the most basic and elemental ideals of this community are laid out. The details are to be worked out by individual communities in different times and places. This idea is supported by the presence of two different sets of statutes and ordinances, each of which follows the commandments in both Exodus and Deuteronomy.
In contrast to Egyptian custom, the commandments do not sanction a human king or a leader to assert power over or demand allegiance from the people. While there are certain societal hierarchies assumed in the commandments, the Decalogue does not command obedience to human leaders. Instead they demand loyalty and obedience to God alone.
The community will not be defined according to the whims of power-hungry human rulers. Rather the allegiance of each person and of the whole group is to God alone.
The commandments also serve to formalize the connection and the relationship between the realms of God and this particular people. As Patrick Miller eloquently expresses it: “…neither community, nor deity have separate existences once the covenant is established. Even though both experience real abandonment on the part of the other for a time, they are forever linked.”1
Significantly, all of this counter-cultural community building happens in the wilderness, and in reaction to the oppressive form of life modeled in Egypt.
If I may be so bold (since this is about preaching the Ten Commandments, perhaps a little brazenness is in order!), I’d like to think out-loud about how struggling, mainline churches might imagine themselves in the wilderness. I hear so much conversation that depicts the mainline church in the U.S. as dying, in part, because it no longer enjoys a privileged place in society.
Like the Israelites in the wilderness, when churches don’t have the money to pay the grocery or water bill, they sometimes long for the way things used to be, for the fabulous food in Egypt. After all, journeying through the wilderness can be terrifying — all the securities and apparent guarantees of survival are gone — but the wilderness could also provide the church with an opportunity to re-define itself according to what matters most.
It strikes me that we might view the church as a community liberated from the bonds of Egypt (read: American consumer military culture), where success and value are enumerated according to the grain stored in silos and the height of the building projects. Many mainline churches have lost wealth and security — but perhaps that’s not entirely a bad thing.
What if we viewed that loss — that displacement from the center — as redemption or as liberation? Perhaps it is an opportunity to embrace the basic contours of the covenant that whittles us down to our essentials — to be a community that places loyalty to God and care for the other at the center of our lives. In the wilderness, maybe we can hear the voice of God more clearly — calling us to live into this covenant.
1The Way of the Lord (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 53.